Writing Right: The Corporate Email
Himadri Sekhar Chowdhury
It's 12:30 AM. You're still at work waiting for an important update from the customer before they go away for the Easter weekend. The mail arrives. However, it does not have a specific approval to start work. You frantically type a reply but get an out-of-office message! You debate whether or not to call the approver during her vacation, and finally don't! This is such a familiar situation. What's gone wrong here? A simple communication breakdown.
Research shows that, on an average, one project in 5 does not meet their original goals and business intent, related to ineffective communications*. A PMI survey showed that 56% of all project challenges stem from communication snafus. This, interestingly, ties in neatly to what George Bernard Shaw had once said, “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
In this article, I am going to focus on email, the single most important tool in corporate communication. I will illustrate how small improvements in communication can greatly improve relationships, and thus results.
This is what communication is all about. Be clear. Do you want an action or a report? The subject line must describe the ask in a concise manner. Follow it up by setting the context in the first few lines in the body of the mail. This sets the tone.
To, CC, BCC – One or All
The names in 'To' are the ones to whom the mail is directed at and the 'CC'ed are those to be informed. Avoid 'BCC' that is considered sly.
Remember email is an alternate to in-person communication. Name the person in the 'To' to act or to receive information. Never say Hi X / Y. This is confusing even though 'X' and 'Y' are in the 'To' list.
A clear objective is of utmost importance. Golden rule, if it is action it must be addressed to one person, if reporting it can be more than one.
It is polite to always have an appropriate salutation. A good morning or good day is softening. This adds a personal touch.
Setting the importance
Every PM worth his salt is familiar with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix – segregation of tasks into four quadrants based on urgency and importance. Using a similar logic, on a smaller scale, determine the importance of your email and flag it accordingly. Always add a deadline for 'action' items.
Structure: The 5 W's
Following a basic journalistic format helps with structuring an email. A good “story” focuses on the 5 W's – Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Framing your email along these W's helps create a structure around the action you're reporting on or assigning. For example: “Rajat needs to deliver the cloud database level 3 update to ABC Corp. by 12 April, 5.30 PM India time. Ashok is assigned to ensure bugs are cleared and load is ready to upload by 10:30 AM on 12 April.” This works well in any scenario.
Every email is different as the action required or report on action taken varies. However, as a rule be polite. Even when you're telling off the team for a missed delivery, you're criticizing the action, and not the persons. This builds relationships with your team and suppliers. Don't miss the objective. Keep your sentences short and to the point and it will help in the easy transfer of information. When required, add bullets and numbering to highlight key items. More important - Do not digress.
Too much information?
For getting the expected response keep the email short and precise. Tying in the mail body to the objective defined in the first paragraph and providing information in bullet points helps limit the amount of content. If there are multiple actions to be taken, would it be better to send more than one email rather than a 50-liner?
The human mind is not conditioned to read and follow actions and instructions that need to be re-read multiple times, unless it's a clearly-defined procedure. So, try to keep it short and if needed, split it into different emails.
Try to find out if you agree with a tiny bit of what is being discussed. Start with that. Then bring in the points that you don't agree with. Rather than saying that you don't like something, give reasons for disagreement. Remember, you're opposed to the action, not the person who has written it. In short be fact based.
Before you send an email
Every email deserves a spell-check. Recently I came across an email where the author had requested attendance for a “Boring” meeting. Luckily the recipients knew it was a meeting with “Boeing” representatives, so the embarrassment was limited to some loud laughter, no major damage done. A quick review before hitting the Send button, and he would have been spared the blushes.
Never write an email when you are angry. If you need to write, save as draft and then decide later, whether to send or not. Believe me, 9 out of 10 times, you will not send it. When you need to, speak in person or have a call. Email chain is frustrating.
I hope this article gives some perspective of the challenges we face in communicating every day. All the best and may the force be with you when you hit send!
The former are the author's personal recommendations and do not reflect PMI's views. (*PMI, the Essential Role of Communications Report, May 2013, or one of the older but still accurate studies at http://www.it-cortex.com/Stat_Failure_Cause.htm)